The loudspeaker growled like an angry stomach, slurred and barely audible over the murmur of several hundred stranded passengers at Dulles International Airport. Rafaela Rosada's creased and anxious face took on an angry look.
Por Dios, que dice?" she demanded, tugging a bystander's sleeve: "For God's sake, what is he saying?"
It was the umpteenth incomprehensible announcement for more than 250 passengers most of them Puerto Rican, whose plan from San Juan landed in Washington instead of New York yesterday because the snowstorm closed New York's three airports. Announcements were in English and few persons understood, a situation that led eventually to an encounter with Fairfax County police.
"Well, there were 300 of them here and me, and they were upset and all, and one of my ticket agents sort of panicked and called the police," explained American Airlines supervisor Sylvia Dickman. "I wasn't upset; we'd been talking . . . nothing happened."
Police moved the group to one end of the ticket area and there were no arrests, but several persons expressed bitterness over the all-English airport signs and lack of any Spanish-speaking personnel. "Racism, that's what it was," said Juan Perez, a house painter who had been returning to New York from a Puerto Rican vacation.
"We do have one employee who speaks Spanish but she couldn't get in to work," said Roger Gray, American Airlines' airport manager. "We did everything we could . . . finally found someone to talk to them. Now we're having trouble getting buses to take them to hotels. It's like having a 10-pound fish in a five-pound bag, really; there's no capacity."
Five airliners with a combined total of $450 to 500 passengers aboard were diverted to Washington early yeasterday when the snow shut down the New York airports, according to Dulles chief of operations Donald Meck. He was expecting as many as 15 jumbo jets to make unplanned stops in Washington last night.
"This situation is not all that unusual," said airport manager Dexter P. Davis. Once there were 38 diverted planes at Dulles at the same time, he said, "just a madhouse."
He added a study is under way on the possibility of making all of Dulles signs multilingual.
"We're a domestic carrier; we're not required to have signs in other languages," American Airlines supervisor Dickman explained to Perez.
"Why not? Aren't we Americans too?" he retorted.
The airline provided breakfast and lunch vouchers for the stranded travelers, but did not have much luck locating one item needed by many of the dozen children in the group. "We were told to sit here without diapers, food for the babies, no information, nothing," complained Carmen Martinez, 20, as her two small children romped among the waiting area seats.
Several other travelers lined up to use a telephone line provided by the airline so they could reasure relatives and friends in Puerto Rico and New York. "My husband died yesterday and I was trying to get home for his funeral," said Rebecca Escobar of Santa Isabel, Puerto Rico."But nobody has a phone there so they will bury him without me." She was close to tears.
"Nobody came and told us there was a phone; we had to come here and ask for it, ask for lunch and everything," Luis Alicea said as he waited in line to call his family in Puerto Rico. Airline personnel had been helpful once the needs were understood, he said.
Later on airline supervisor Dickamn stood before the murmuring group at another checkout counter, patiently trying with her two years of high school Spanish to explain to each person what the hotel vouchers were: "Hotel," she told Rafaela Rosada, pointing at one box on the voucher that said $29; "Comida (food)," she said, pointing at another that said $13.
The old woman nodded, clutching the hand of her 5-year-old grandson and moved off toward the baggage area.